NBJ Summit 2018: Tipping Point for Millennial Leadership in the Supplement Industry

I’ve been participating in the Nutrition Business Journal Summit for the last ten years either as an attendee or a speaker at the practitioner channel roundtable. This year I was an attendee, which gave me the luxury of observing more and stressing less over my presentation.

While there were many areas of content focus, what impressed me this year was that members of the Millennial generation have arrived as leaders within the supplement industry.

Over the years, I’ve met many Millennial business leaders and founders within the larger natural products industry, but the supplement side of the industry has been dominantly Gen X and Boomer. This gathering was different. No longer were Millennials the occasional face in a crowd of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s — they were a contingent, noticeable in both their quantity and participation.

Clearly we’re approaching a tipping point for the industry. There’s a phenomenon coined by Malcolm Gladwell that refers to the time when an idea, behavior, or product crosses the threshold of being small to reaching critical mass, to becoming what he calls an “epidemic.”

Looking Back at the History of the Natural Products Movement

The 1980s marked the tipping point for the natural products movement. When we look back, we see that this movement met all three of Gladwell’s “agents of change” requirements for epidemics:

  1. The Law of the Few: This is the law which states that before a social epidemic can occur, key people have to be involved. Post-1960s radicals and hippies moved into the business of all things natural during the 1970s. They were joined by others who felt the conventional, mainstream approach to health and wellness was broken. These entrepreneurs connected with local communities of like-minded people and spread their message one person at a time. Stories abound of these founders selling their provisions to little stores out of the back of their VW Microbuses. They became known for specialties in food, herbs, or supplements, and the successful ones evolved into powerhouse businesses that are still around today.
  2. The Stickiness Factor: The movement’s message was memorable and impactful. Natural is good for people and planet, and you can take control of your health.
  3. The Power of Context: There was a clear enemy — Big Ag, processed foods, and the medical system. For years, the natural industry grew as an alternative to these negatives.

By the mid-1980s, natural food stores were abundant, herbal remedies and supplements were experiencing double-digit growth, and complementary and alternative therapies were proliferating. By the 1990s, the natural and alternative health and wellness epidemic was raging and began getting attention from bigger players.

What the 2018 NBJ Summit Means for the Future of the Natural Products Industry

The NBJ Summit is an annual gathering of natural products leaders, mostly from the dietary supplement industry. Over the years, I’ve connected with many of the same folks — often visionaries or pioneers who’ve been honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards. They seeded and grew this industry.

But I’ve been wondering when the Millennials would start making their mark. And at the NBJ Summit 2018, they arrived in force, and they’re reshaping this industry in their own image (hint: it’s not about pills).

Leadership Tipping

What I see with this new group of Millennial entrepreneurial leaders is that they are willing to disrupt, they are not afraid of innovation, and their desire to foster change is what drives them. This latter factor is a subtle but important shift. They want to change the world, not fight an enemy.

What is encouraging for the natural health and wellness movement (in which I include foods, supplements, active lifestyles, and integrative medicine), and what makes me think that we will reach a tipping point soon for the next nutrition industry wave, is that these younger leaders represent Gladwell’s first rule of epidemics, “The Law of the Few” — a group of “people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” They meet Gladwell’s construct because they are a powerful mix of Connectors, Mavens, and Salespeople. They move fast, demonstrating their comfort with new technologies and ever-changing methods of communication and connection.

They also want to grow fast. From talking to several of them at the Summit, as well as other friends, clients and colleagues, what differentiates them from the old guard is that they look to grow quickly and sell. This isn’t to say they are in it just for the money. They hold strong values that are near and dear to the industry. They continue to reinvigorate the industry with their energy and ideas, but they also don’t see themselves doing the same thing 20 or 30 years from now. And that new challenge will be fueled by the success of their first endeavor.

What drives them is the need to make a true impact on the world, by standing for something, not against something. When you read or hear their brand messages, they are usually mission-driven, with plenty of Gladwell’s “Stickiness Factor.” Just look at a few of the younger participants at the Summit and their companies and you’ll see how they’re trying to improve the world:

  • Olly, a nutrition brand that’s bottling happiness as the foundation of health
  • Ora, a digitally-native brand serving up sustainable and whole food-based nutrition
  • Coconut Cult, delivering powerful probiotics in a coconut-based yogurt

Finally, they meet Gladwell’s definition of the “Power of Context.” We are in a post-adversarial world, where change is furthered when people stand for something instead of against it. Consumers are now multi-channel shoppers rather than loyal to a particular type of store, and small-batch local lives comfortably with a global access to almost anything.

This new world has many challenges, and to make change that will truly reverse ominous planetary trends will require leaders who are comfortable and courageous enough to tip the scales toward the good.

I was humbled and excited to be surrounded by these new leaders at NBJ Summit 2018 who are doing just that.